Saturday, February 01, 2014

Bali by Bike

"Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the human race," declared literary time traveller HG Wells. Nothing as grandiose as the salvation of mankind was on my mind when I packed up my two-wheeled beast of burden and flew over to Bali for a few days of sun, sea, sweat and saddle sores recently, however Indonesia does offer cyclists an embarrassment of riches: open ocean roads, fertile jungle rides, picturesque villages and, of course, vertiginous hills. There are always hills if you're a bicyclist, there’s no getting around that.

Day One - Legian- Seminyak - Kuta - 0-10km

Okay okay, this was admittedly no Lance Armstrong feat of endurance cycling, but I thought that it would be best to ease into the tour with a spot of R and R, and pedal power proved to be an entirely illuminating way of navigating the shop-and-restaurant-filled micro gangs of Bali Ground Zero. It seems de rigueur these days to frown upon the crass commercialism and lowbrow vibes of the Kuta area, however a single day spent here is not without its enjoyment and charms.

Day Two - Legian - Sanur - Candidasa - 60km

Sixty clicks in a single day are about my bicycling limit, as I'm not looking to break any ironman endurance records when I head out on tour. This day's ride was flat and not too strenuous. There was  a fair amount of traffic that I had to share the road with on the first 12km stretch down to Sanur, however upon arrival I could enjoy Sanur's famous bicycle-and-pedestrian-only, 4km-long beachfront walk, which passes in front of a cornucopia of bars, hotels and restaurants and which offers superb views over the ocean all the way to Gunung Agung in the distance.

After a beachside lunch and a quick spin along the promenade, it was time to head up to Candidasa. The road hugged the coast like a blanket, offering some great views, and thankfully the traffic tapered out to a trickle after 10km or so. Side roads led down to the beach all the way along the route and I managed to check out a couple of deserted sandy stretches. Further down the road, the Bali Safari & Marine Park ( offered a nice break. Featuring 60 rare species the park made for a superb stopover.

Continuing on to Candidasa, a brief stop in the still charming backpacker zone of neighbouring Padangbai was in order. As well as boats across the strait to Lombok, Padangbai boasts a sleepy pace of life and a beautiful little curve of beach. The final run into Candidasa was a slight test of my mettle, as the road ascends for a few kilometres. It's a thigh-singeing sting in the tail for sure, but after a beer on the seafront, all was well with the world.

Day Three - Candidasa - Tirtagangga - Selat - 40km

The third day of my Tour de East Bali started with a ride along the scenic Candidasa coastline for a few kilometres to one of the island’s best-kept sandy secrets. In fact, it isn't actually so much of a secret any more, but perhaps this is for the best, as this means that there are sunbeds, beach umbrellas and warungs selling grilled fish and Bintang. The turning down to Pasir Putih (White Beach), as it's known, can be found about 5km east of Candidasa, near the village of Perasi. The turning is signposted but can be quite hard to spot, which is where travelling by bicycle comes in handy. A 1.5km-long track took me down to a delightful crescent of white sand backed by coconut trees, with a shady cliff at one end and some very mellow surf to enjoy. In fact, this little strip of sand is much like a mini Jimbaran.

After a 90-minute lounge, it was time for the uphill push away from the coast through the town of Amlapura, up to the Tirta Gangga (Water of the Ganges) water temple. The road ascends the whole way, although the incline is not too steep, and so I managed to find a slow, low-gear rhythm and pedalled the whole route without dismounting once, a source of some pride. I should confess here though that I stopped halfway up for a warung lunch of pork, pork and more pork, Balinese style.

Tirta Gangga itself is an endlessly photogenic place, and after reeling off megabytes of snaps, I took a cooling dip in one of the ancient pools before heading off again through beautiful terraced paddies. I cycled west along a stunning central Balinese road that skirted the bottom of the towering Gunung Agung. The road offered some breathtaking views but also ascended and ascended, seemingly forever. I got off and pushed up the ascent for an hour or so here, however this gave my backside a rest, so it wasn’t so bad. Moreover, my trusty aluminium steed carried the weight of my gear, in contrast to the spine-compressing backpacks of the hiker. After a while though, I began to feel like a latterday Sisyphus, endlessly rolling a 21-speed mountain bike uphill instead of a boulder.

I passed through the sweet villages of Bebanden, Sibetan and Duda before reaching Selat, which lies near the starting point for an assault on the mighty Agung. I thought I'd give mountaineering a miss though and instead checked into an amazing little hotel called Great Mountain Views ( Not the most imaginative or poetic of names perhaps but thankfully it does what it says on the tin. Sipping beer in the lee of Mount Agung and gazing out over rice paddies, I rested and drank in the beating heart of Bali. I had come a long way, both literally and metaphorically, from the chaos of Kuta, and it felt as if I had travelled in time as well as space.

Day Four - Selat - Ubud - 40km

After a breakfast eaten in my hotel's paddy-field dining area, I hit the road once more. The morning's ride was downhill all the way along the quiet Sidemen road that rolls through some spectacular scenery. All of those Balinese clich├ęs about verdant rice terraces, plunging mountains and the omnipresent slopes of Agung in the distance are really re-energised when you are on a bicycle, freewheeling merrily downhill through the middle of all this sumptuous gorgeousness, with only the occasional car or motorcycle to disturb the pellucid peace.

I passed through the lush paddy terraces of Sidemen, an artistic and cultural centre which is particularly well known for its woven ikat (cloth). The area was also home to renowned German artist Walter Spies, who lived here in the 1930s and who had a profound influence on Balinese art.

I continued my freewheeling down the beautiful River Unda valley and eventually rolled into the bustling but rather sweet little town of Semarapura, which is also commonly known as Klungkung. Klungkung was once the centre of the island's most important kingdom and was an artistic and cultural capital. On April 28, 1908 though, a terrible battle raged here when the Balinese, armed only with traditional knives, were mown down by Dutch guns.

I visited the Kertha Gosa, an ancient hall of justice and a quite superb example of Klungkung architecture. I also strolled through the attached Museum Semarajaya before heading just across the road to the Monumen Puputan Klungkung, a rather phallic looking erection whose interior is filled with dioramas depicting Balinese history.

I then pressed on through the strong sun up towards the ever popular Ubud, passing some Japanese caves and the colourful studio of eccentric artist Sukanta Wahyu along the way. As I neared Ubud, the traffic increased noticeably, as this famous little spot is more of a draw these days than it has ever been. This is where the wonders of GPS and Google Maps really come into their own however. Simply keep your smartphone handy and plunge off the main road for some satellite-guided navigation through some of the area’s gorgeous rice fields.

Day Five - Ubud - Kuta - 40km

As the crow flies, this final leg was only around 30km in length, but as the crow flies is so not the way to do this one. In fact, I fired up Google Maps once more and spent the entire morning pottering around the endless carpet of green that is the Ubud sawah (rice paddies). The centre of Ubud may these days rather depressingly resemble a Kuta beach for yoga aficionados and people writing their first novels, however relief from all the hustle and bustle was just a few turns of the pedals away.

I eventually headed south towards Denpasar. Using the mighty Google once again I managed to skirt around the edge of Bali's choking capital via some surprisingly mellow and enjoyable side roads. I gradually weaved my way southwest before eventually linking up with the main Seminyak strip in time for an afternoon refresher and a look through the photos of my tour.

Do not be afraid of a few days in the saddle folks. In the right hands it can be a very wonderful thing.